Over the last two weeks, the Celtics have seen their bright future and their ugly recent past. In other words, they’re playing like a potentially good young team.
On Tuesday, November 17, following a three-game win streak over playoff-hopeful teams (Atlanta, OKC, and Houston) fans were understandably excited. The cold-water-in-the-face realist would have noted that all three wins came with significant caveats. Atlanta’s Jeff Teague played on an injured ankle for the entire 2nd half, and finished with just 6 points. In the win over Oklahoma City, Kevin Durant was on the sideline, not wearing his uniform…because his hamstring was healing. In the win over Houston…well, everyone has been beating the Rockets this year. At the time, Kevin McHale was still coaching the team…but opening the year with three 20-point losses in a row, and being outscored by 40 in the 2nd half of the Heat game were pretty disastrous harbingers.
After listening to True Hoop’s David Thorpe on the Lowe Post podcast, it appears Harden is noticeably out of shape, which might account for his 40% shooting from the field and 30% from deep. It was also kind of a shock to see Ty Lawson starting. Over the course of his first 16 games as a Rocket, Lawson’s corny nickname might be “wrench,” as his ball-dominant ways haven’t made any sense on a starting unit with Harden on it. Houston’s offensive efficiency is 105.4 with Lawson off the court, and only 99.2 with Lawson on court. He makes much more sense as a 18-20 minute per game, leader of the 2nd unit at the moment. One has to wonder if he is in counseling for alcoholism, which became a noticeable issue last year in Denver. In any event, the Rockets and Thunder will both be much better this year than they were when the Celtics faced them.
Since then, the Celtics have gone 3-3. After dropping a close game to the Mavs, then splitting a home-and-home with the lowly Nets (3-12), Boston lost Marcus Smart to a knee injury (Smart will be out at least another two weeks) and promptly got annihilated against Atlanta on TNT. In their last two games, the Celtics have returned from the depths. Through the game’s first 42 minutes, Boston gave life to a team that has now set the record for professional sports team season-opening futility. Yes, the Celtics almost lost to the now 0-17 Sixers. They were down 11 with 6:16 remaining in the 4th and boos could be heard at TD Garden–before Jae Crowder decided to take over the game.
Mighty Jae Crowder, Sixer Destroyer
Here is what Mighty Jae did in the final six minutes:
- blocked Robert Covington’s 7-footer in the lane
- missed two free-throws (okay, not all good)
- made a 25-foot three-pointer
- stole the ball from the aforementioned Mr. Covington
- got a defensive board
- With Boston down 3 and 1:14 left, stole an Isaiah Canaan pass which led to a transition lay-up
- made another 25-foot three-pointer to put the Celtics up 82-80
That’s a pretty sweet six-minute tribute to Jae Crowder and the Celtics newfound defensive identity. Even without Marcus Smart, the Celtics survived with defensive. It bodes well for the future.
I’m not sure what to make of the 111-78 blowout win over Washington. The Wizards are clearly going through some identity issues in their conversion to small-ball. For all of the “Kris Humphries can now shoot 3s” rumors (currently at 36.6% but 1 of his last 11 from deep), Nene remains absolutely vital to the Wizards hopes. In Nene’s 209 limited minutes, the Wizards are a whopping +18.5 points per 100 possessions better than they are without Nene. Their defense has been nonexistent without him. A calf-issue held him to 2 minutes in the Celtics recent win over Washington.
East Now Filled With Decent Teams
As of Saturday, Boston’s record is 9-7. The season is still way too young to start analyzing the playoff picture but I can’t help myself, so I’ll just say this: six Eastern conference teams are currently within 1.5 games of each other. They will be competing for the 7th and 8th seeds all year. In reality, many of them will be competing for the 7th seed, as nobody will want to face the inevitable top-seeded Cavs.
That group includes: Charlotte, Detroit, Orlando, New York, and Washington. Just below them is Milwaukee, who many expect to at least contend for the playoffs. As predicted, the East will be filled with decent to solid teams this year. The parity is bound to be intriguing, and trades could easily determine which teams finish in those final two or three playoff slots. The question is: how badly should those teams be focusing on the playoffs, especially if that means an 8th seed match-up with Cleveland. On the other hand, fans in those cities haven’t witnessed much success in the last several seasons, which means that a playoff series would bring a needed boost to each franchise in contention. In addition, the confidence-building and tough tests that a young team needs is never easy to quantify. The conference disparity may finally be regressing to the mean. On the other hand, injuries and anomalies have altered the West landscape and its still very early.
Gorgeous George and Slim Kyle
Of the current top 6 in the East, only Indiana is a surprise. The Pacers have been riding the newly unleashed Paul George (at least 4 made threes in 5 of last 6 games, averaging 28.8/8.6/4.6 and 49.4% from deep in November). Toronto has been slightly better than some expected, with Kyle Lowry’s off-season workouts translating into early season success and DeMarre Carroll adding shooting and a defensive presence. Luis Scola has been rejuvenated by his new Canadian digs. The Raptors handed the Cavs a rare loss this past Wednesday, and are now 11-6.
Avery Bradley: Three-Point Assassin
One very positive development for Celtics fans, Avery Bradley is taking (and making) more three-pointers. Bradley’s range has been increasing gradually over the last few seasons. Thankfully, it has now extended beyond the three-point line. Remember last year, when he took so many of those long-twos that have become so outlawed by the holy analytic trinity of 3s, layups, and free-throws? Last year, Bradley took 43% of his overall shots from that portion of the court (not the paint or beyond the arc) known as mid-range, compared with attempting only 35% from deep.
Not only is the percentage of overall attempts moving in the right direction this year (up from 35% to 41.2% of his shots are now three-point attempts), but his three-point efficiency has been excellent (43%).
For more shot charts (via Vorped), click here.
With a free-flowing offense infused with Isaiah Thomas penetrations, Bradley is showing a new side of himself, which the Celtics desperately need.
Upcoming Games (five game road trip):
After 16 games, Boston’s defensive efficiency ranks in the top 5 according to various sites. On the flipside, they’ve faced the 4th weakest schedule in the league. That schedule gets tougher soon, with a five-game road trip, including stops in Miami and San Antonio.
Sun, 11/29 @ Orlando (8-8), 6 EST
After starting the season 0-3, the Magic have won 6 of their last 7 at home. Orlando is as young and athletic as any team. Small forward Evan Fournier has been a surprise for the Magic, leading the team in scoring (17.7) and shooting 40% from deep.
Mon, 11/30 @ Miami (10-5), 730 EST
The Heat are holding opponents to only 91.7 ppg (2nd). Center Hassan Whiteside is blocking everything in sight (4.8). On the second night of a back-t0-back, this will be a very tough match-up.
Thu, 12/3 @ Sacramento (6-11) in Mexico City, 10 EST
This game is the only NBA game being played in Mexico City. This is especially sad for me and my friend Eric because we are longtime Celtics fans who made the 90 minute trek to Sacramento last year to see Boston, but the trip to Mexico City is slightly more expensive, involves a passport, and plane tickets, and happens to be on a weeknight. The Kings are 6-11, but 5-5 when DeMarcus Cousins has been healthy.
Sat, 12/5 @ San Antonio (13-3), 830 EST
The Spurs in San Antonio. Not a nice time. The Celtics played San Antonio tough in Boston, before Aldridge helped the Spurs pull away in the 4th, 95-87.
Mon, 12/7 @ New Orleans (4-12), 8 EST
Anthony Davis hasn’t had a healthy roster around him this year. Tyreke Evans (knee) is likely to make his season debut this week. Point guard Jrue Holiday is playing 20-25 min/game as he works his way back from some sort of ailment. This is a talented roster with an unbelievably versatile young power forward.
If the Celtics manage to go 3-2 on this trip without their best perimeter defender/tone-setter, it would have to be considered a major success. Hopefully Smart will be able to return within two-to-three weeks.